Now, Not Later
Everyone I’ve met has at least one realistic dream they’d like to see come true.
They’d like to have a good body. Or be nicer. Or learn a hobby.
But when I ask them what they’re doing to make it come true, almost always, stripping away the wishy-washy, what I hear is “nothing”.
Not surprising. Our brains were wired to be short-sighted.
Procrastination isn’t a mark of the lazy. It’s the default, a mark of normality.
Although college kids are the most likely to wait until the last minute, the problem is universal. According to online goal setting community 43things, stop procrastinating is the third most popular goal (no surprise, lose weight is #1).
Why is long-term action so hard?
The average American adult would rather accept $50 today than $100 two years from now.1 That’s an annual return of 42%.
Absurd. The average annual return of the stock market over the past 50 years has been around 6%.2
In other words, our first impulse is to ignore an investment opportunity seven times better than that provided by reality.
That’s why we borrow at high interest rates rather than save and vegetate rather than socialize. As things stand, our dreams are good for the additional jolt of inspiration and excitement, but not much else.
They live too far into the future.
Why are humans wired this way?
From an evolutionary perspective, most of the human brain developed under an environment of scarcity and unpredictability. Day to day survival was concern number 1, 2, and 3.
First, life was demanding enough that focusing on the far future at the expense of the present could get you killed. For example, imagine someone spending time experimenting with new weapons, when what they should have been doing is finding food. New weapons would be useful, but it might take years until something effective was discovered. In the mean time, they would have starved to death.
Second, life was uncertain. A caveman could spend years studying how best to hunt deer, only to have a plague kill off the local game and force him to find alternative sources of food. A high-school student who learns how to program well will be able to get a job, now and 15 years later (although perhaps not at the salary he’d want).
Third, many actions which are beneficial in the long-term but costly in the short-term were transcribed into subconscious impulses. Making friends, for example, was (and still is) useful, but takes up time that could have been used to do other things. To encourage friend making behavior, productive social interaction was made to be pleasurable. The part of the brain responsible for long-term action was unneeded.
For those reasons, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for long-term action, is small and weak. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt describers it like this:
Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain weakness of the will…. The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.
The best course of action isn’t to fight against human nature – that’s a tough battle to win. More effective is a gentle nudge.
That’s why the first step in effective long-term goal accomplishment is creating and focusing on a short-term subgoal.
One Week or One Month, Not One Year
Intellectually, I’m capable of planning out and visualizing years into the future. But on an emotional level, all I’m good for is two weeks. And I rank in the 99.9 percentile for future-goal oriented.
I’m capable of getting about as much done in 2 months as I am in 2 weeks, because I don’t start working until I’m near the end of my deadline. Projects and reports that I should have spaced out over eight weeks I do in the last few days.
Anything past one or two weeks I have trouble feeling motivated for.
I’m sure its different for you, but three days or three months, work with rather than against your nature.
What’s your sweet spot?
If your long-term dream is to have a sexy body, figure out a sub-goal which takes you closer to the dream, but which is close enough to the present to keep you excited. If your sweet spot is one week, then create a sub-goal of losing half a pound over the next seven days. If your sweet spot is two months, then create a sub-goal of losing 5 pounds over the next eight weeks. You get the idea.
But you might be thinking, “this isn’t enough!”
With a sub-goal, although the reward is closer to the present, it’s also smaller. Writing half a book is good for feeling proud, but only a whole book can make any money.
Don’t worry, go through the whole series and that’s a problem you’ll be able to deal with.
For now, think about your sweet spot. If all you’re good for is one day, that’s okay!
How many days in advance of a deadline do you start working hard? What can you do to make progress on your goal during those next few days?
- Latham 1974 – 1 day goal setting workshop given to 20 tree loggers increased productivity over the following 3 months, valued at a quarter-million dollars.
- Cambell 1976 – Chess players given a hard goal were more likely to successfully complete higher-level chess problems.
- Ivancevish 1976 – Sales personal given training in goal setting sold more.
- Becker 1978 – Two groups of people given goals on conserving energy. Those given the easy goal did no different, while those given the hard goal cut household energy expenditure by 14% over the duration of the study.
- Latham 1978 – Typists given hard goals increased their performance.
- Latham 1982 – 39 truck drivers were assigned goals. Over the following four months, their performance increased, being valued at $2.7 million dollars.
- Reber 1990 – Factory workers walked through a goal setting workshop and provided feedback increased safety compliance from around 50% to almost 100%.
- Rothman 2005 – Smokers helped in setting quit goals were almost twice as likely to have abstained after a quit attempt. This held true even after 18 months.
- Seo 2009 – Students walked through the goal setting process were less likely to procrastinate.
Read Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation: A 35-Year Odyssey for more.
A goal is a dream with a deadline.
All who have accomplished great things have had a great aim, have fixed their gaze on a goal which was high, one which sometimes seemed impossible.
Failures do what is tension relieving, while winners do what is goal achieving.
Learn from the past, set vivid, detailed goals for the future, and live in the only moment of time over which you have any control: now.
Goals are the fuel in the furnace of achievement.
If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.
In absence of clearly defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily acts of trivia.
The person with a fixed goal, a clear picture of his desire, or an ideal always before him, causes it, through repetition, to be buried deeply in his subconscious mind and is thus enabled, thanks to its generative and sustaining power, to realize his goal.
–Claude M. Bristol
Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.
Failure is not reaching your goal, but in having no goal to reach.
Think little goals and expect little achievements. Think big goals and win big success.
David Joseph Schwartz
The reason most people never reach their goals is that they don’t define them, or ever seriously consider them as believable or achievable. Winners can tell you where they are going, what they plan to do along the way, and who will be sharing the adventure with them.
The higher goal a person pursues, the quicker his ability develops, and the more beneficial he will become to the society. I believe for sure that this is also a truth.
“If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy and inspires your hopes.
If you’re bored with life — you don’t get up every morning with a burning desire to do things — you don’t have enough goals.
Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.
The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain no matter what happens.
The only limitations one has, are the ones they place on themselves.
Winners compare their achievements with their goals, while losers compare their achievements with those of other people.
Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.
Pain makes me grow. Growing is what I want. Therefore, for me pain is pleasure.
One man has enthusiasm for 30 minutes, another for 30 days, but it is the man who has it for 30 years who makes a success of his life.
–Edward B. Butler
If we each get on a treadmill right now, one of two things is going to happen… either you’re going to get off first or I am going to die. Period.
A year from now you will wish you had started today.
Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.
–Neale Donald Walsch
Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit.
Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.
Just do it.
If you don’t do what’s best for your body, you’re the one who comes up on the short end.
If you want to look young and thin, hang around old fat people.
You have to stay in shape. My grandmother, she started walking five miles a day when she was 60. She’s 97 today and we don’t know where the hell she is.
Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.
No one can cheat you out of ultimate success but yourself.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
My philosophy of life is that if we make up our mind what we are going to make of our lives, and then work hard toward that goal, we never lose, somehow, we win out.
I like thinking big. If you’re going to be thinking anything, you might as well think big.
Lazy men are soon poor; hard workers get rich. A wise youth makes hay while the sun shines, but what a shame to see a lad who sleeps away his hour of opportunity.
–The Living Bible
An average person with average talent, ambition and education, can outstrip the most brilliant genius in our society, if that person has clear, focused goals.
The man says, ‘If I had a fortune, I’d take good care of it. But I only have a paycheck and I don’t know where it all goes.’ Wouldn’t you love to have him running your company?
Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.
A year from now you will wish you had started today.
All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous and unpremeditated act without benefit of experience.
Wealth depends chiefly on two words, industry and frugality; that is, waste neither time nor money, but make the best use of both.
Something in human nature causes us to start slacking off at our moment of greatest accomplishment. As you become successful, you will need a great deal of self-discipline not to lose your sense of balance, humility, and commitment.
The art is not in making money, but in keeping it.
Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.
If you would be wealthy, think of saving as well as getting.
When I was young I thuoght that money was the most important thing in life; now that I’m old I know it is.
It is not the creation of wealth that is wrong, but the love of money for its own sake.
For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.
Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, and insist upon it.
– Elizabeth Gilbert
It’s been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will.
– L.M. Montgomery
Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.
Tell the negativity committee that meets inside your head to sit down and shut up.?
A bad attitude is like a flat tire, you can’t get very far until you change it.
Happiness is not something you postpone for the future; it is something you design into the present.
Life is not about making others happy. Life is about sharing your happiness with others.
If your happiness depends on what somebody else does, you do have a pretty big problem.
Someone else is happy with far less than what you have.
Talk about your blessings more than you talk about your problems.
Those who bring sunshine to the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.
–James M. Barrie
I am determined to be cheerful and happy in whatever situation I may find myself. For I have learned that the greater part of our misery or unhappiness is determined not by our circumstance but by our disposition.
Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.
Happiness is not a feeling, it is a choice.
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